Series to binge during quarantine
It's Day 10 of Quarantine, and if you're anything like me, you're starting to lose your mind. Well, here's what I can chip in to help everyone stay sane: a round-up of some excellent series that you can get properly buried in, and use to go on an adventure far away and forget some of the crap that's happening. I like to think that the below is a good mix of fantasy, historical fiction, and thrillers, with a good balance of things that are silly and fun and a bit more serious and involved.
Here's my recommendation for series to binge-read:
House of Niccoló, by Dorothy Dunnett
I've reviewed the first book in this series, Niccoló Rising, before. It might seem bold to recommend an 8-book series when I'm only halfway through Book 5, but I've loved every single page of this roller-coaster ride of a series so far. I'm not going to go too much into it, because every post since January has included at least one comment about where I am in my adventures with Nicholas - but this is a great book series for quarantine, because of how involved and complex each story is. As you move through the books the stories and the puzzles get more intricate and the moving parts get more and more numerous and far-flung - plus, when you can't leave your house, a rollicking 15th-century epic adventure through all of Europe, Africa and the Levant is exactly what you need. I might be stuck on my couch, but actually I'm strolling through Renaissance-era Edinburgh and watching jousts in Florence with Nicholas explaining his schemes next to me and teaching a parrot secret codes in Cypriot Greek. This series is brilliant, outrageous, emotional fun accompanied by excellent writing, superb research, and magnificent characters. And we've all currently got plenty of time to devote the time to reading these books and fully understanding them that they deserve.
You might, however, have to bite the bullet and get them on e-readers or audiobooks, as I think I've purchased the last print copies available in England.
"The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries", by Tana French
I've mentioned this series before - it's, in my opinion, one of the best thriller series out there. It's a non-sequential grouping of six novels that center around the Dublin Murder Squad - each new book focuses on someone who was loosely connected to the previous mystery, so the books work really well as individual mysteries as well as part of a larger series. And the mysteries are great - well-plotted and excellently-paced, with satisfying twists, unexpected turns, and a sense of darkness that creeps up at you and surprises you when you least expect it. I've been meaning to give this series a re-read in the hope that Tana French is going to write a seventh book for her Dublin Murder Squad. These books are just so good. The writing is brilliant, they're eerily atmospheric, and incredibly gripping and absorbing. You emerge from their world and their stories blinking, somewhat surprised that the world you live in has managed to carry on while you've been so completely absorbed into the investigation of the story's central detective. The way the narrative changes in each book, as the central detective changes, is part of this series's fascination - and the way the perceptions you have of the characters shift through the multiple books and the multiple viewpoints. What's particularly absorbing with this series is also the way the main mystery mirrors or undercuts the narrator's internal struggle and development. The books, all six of them, are permeated with a sort of Gothicness that is both an homage to the Brontës and excellent examples of Gothic novels in and of themselves, and that's what makes it so difficult to pull away from the stories. I stayed up all night to read the second book, The Likeness, in one sitting because I physically could not put it down.
I read a review - this one here; it does a great job of articulating some of the things I'm not good enough to put into words myself - that makes a pass at trying to explain why this series can evoke some almost cult-like adoration in its fans. And I do get it - I would give quite a lot for Tana French to keep writing these. Tana, I'm begging you - give me more of these books.
Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen
This series is my guilty pleasure and is absolutely silly, bonkers fun. It's about a young woman in the 1930s who's thirty-first in line for the British throne and so the Queen asks her to be her personal agent, and go on missions to spare the royal family or British aristocracy embarrassment. There's also a really sweet, silly romance with an Irish earl, Darcy O'Mara, who is so obviously based on Fitzwilliam Darcy that I think it's a copyright infringement. There are ten books in the series with the eleventh out in August, so plenty to keep you busy - and you'll race through them because they're really short, simple mysteries that are just pure, delightful, ridiculous fun. One of them takes place in a country house where the murders are based off of the clues of the Twelve Days of Christmas song. One of them takes place in Kenya where the murder is disguised as a deadly mauling by a cheetah. But the main romance is really sweet, even if the characters are all a bit one-dimensional, and this is just some light-hearted, silly, escapist fare - and who doesn't need that right now?
"The Daevabad Trilogy", by S.A. Chakraborty
A fantasy entry, this. I can't remember how I stumbled on it, but boy am I glad I did. This is pure fantasy - a world that exists separately from the human world, a world of sorcerers and magical healers and djinni, and where a war of centuries past between the spirits and the gods is picking right back up again in explosive fashion. It all centers on a human pickpocket in Cairo, who - surprise surprise - is the long-hidden, long-lost descendant of the annihilated race of mythical healers, and is the only one who can bridge the gap between the spirit world and ours.
The world-building in this is intricate, well-researched and phenomenally well-done. The third and final book in the trilogy is released in June, but the first two are chunky enough to keep you plenty busy for a few more days. The characters are all complex, multi-faceted people; and the intrigue, despite being a bit unoriginal, is gripping because of the mythical elements the author does such a great job of building into her dialogue and her narration. The stakes of the story are appropriately high, and the writing - while excellent - isn't too difficult, so you spend more time with the plot than you do with the writing itself, even as it's cleverly subverting some of the more annoying fantasy tropes. Definitely a recommendation for people who like fantasy, as well as a good starter for people who don't have too much familiarity with the genre.
Les Rois Maudits, by Maurice Druon
These have also gotten a mention on this blog before. George RR Martin calls them the original Game of Thrones, and they definitely are, just without the fantasy and the scope. These focus on the last of the Capetian kings, and the curse supposedly laid on them by the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar as he is burned at the stake by King Philippe IV of France. There's all the dynastic politicking and infighting and intrigue that you want out of historical fiction, as well as a heartbreaking romance between two of the 'little' people in the story; there's witchcraft and adultery and conspiracy and murder. There's seven books in the series, and even though the stories are complex and fascinating, they're a very easy, speedy read. I got through all seven books in one week when I first read them because, again, they're so gripping and absorbing.
They're available in an English translation here.
"The Lunar Chronicles", by Marissa Meyer
So this is a slightly roque recommendation, as it's technically a YA series (and I have some THOUGHTS about YA as a genre), but I promise, this one is really good. It's a retelling of fairy tales in a dystopian, futurist world where people live on the moon and there's space travel and androids and special telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Every book sets up its own fairy tale while also building on the first book's overarching storyline - Cinder is obviously a retelling of Cinderella; and then it's Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White. It's a pretty bonkers set-up, but the world-building in this series is excellent, and Marissa Meyer does a damn good job of writing a good, fun story that's accessible to teenagers without dumbing anything down, so adults can enjoy it as well! The dialogue is crisp and funny and sharp, and the stories don't fall into any of the overdone, obvious, clichéd fantasy YA tropes that I find so irritating in some other series. The ending feels satisfying, the stakes are appropriately high, and the plot armor is believable rather than taking you out of the story. Plus, of all the series in this recommendation list, this is the one that's the most value for your escapist fantasy fare. Just talking about it has made me want to re-read it!
Anyway - I hope these recommendations give you some new, exciting things to sink your teeth into and momentarily escape the difficult situation we're all facing. If you do read these, please let me know your thoughts. These books and series are some of my favorites and I'd love to talk about them to someone who's just discovering these worlds, or have also fallen in love with them.
Stay safe, everyone - and enjoy all these adventures we have time to go on now.